I.C. MURRELL — Plan for Port Arthur workers returning to city hall likely resonating

Published 12:18 am Friday, August 7, 2020

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It’s been no secret that city hall has been closed to the public since March due to the effects of coronavirus (and if you must know, that is a legitimate excuse).

At the time Port Arthur officials began to confront this ugly virus and its impact on the community, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to the coronavirus.

The provisions are in place through Dec. 31.

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District 4 Councilman Harold Doucet voiced a concern about the level of service from — not in — city hall during Tuesday’s regular council meeting via Zoom.

“It’s obvious things haven’t changed, and it’s obvious we have people working in the community every day, exposed to everybody, and they are only getting regular salary, and we have people who work in offices where they have doors,” he said. “… I’m tired of citizens calling me, telling me they can’t get anybody at city hall, and I’m tired of calling sometimes and I can’t get anybody at city hall. I don’t point fingers. I identify a problem, and the problem needs to be fixed. People need to come to work and do their jobs. It’s the city manager’s responsibility to ensure the environment for which they come to work is one that follows all the requirements laid out in the declarations that are put out by the county judge, the government and the mayor.”

City Manager Ron Burton has not shirked from that responsibility, and his bosses acknowledged that.

Burton gave councilmembers a plan for having all teleworkers return to their offices, even in a pandemic. Employees are asked to follow social distancing guidelines, wear face coverings and allow no more than two people to an elevator at a time.

Burton is also posting signage throughout city hall informing employees of safety rules. Usually a calming voice during open council meetings, Burton gave an emphatic message to employees:

“I’m going to make every bit of literature and information available to staff so they don’t make the case that they are uncomfortable or unsafe,” he said.

“It’s a shame to see the level of distrust in staff that has developed as a result of COVID. Even in a staff meeting with directors … two-thirds of them signed on by phone, and some of them only stayed 12 minutes on the phone. Those are directors working for the city, so when they see you as a director robbing the city like that, what will they do if you do not set the example?

“You do not have the respect to spend one hour on the phone with the city manager. … So, yes, everybody comes back to work. And if I’m going to have to treat you as a child, I will treat you as a child until you comply. We don’t employ children around here. You leave your home to come to work as a grown-up, and I’m going to treat you as a grown-up. And, when we get to the point where I have to treat you as a child, I have no difficulty in doing that as well.”

Well, then.

Asked about those remarks, Burton said the importance of bringing his employees back to city hall is to measure productivity. Workers, he said, have worked staggered shifts between city hall and telework during the pandemic.

Mayor Pro Tem Charlotte Moses praised Burton’s plan as a proactive and cohesive measure to bring back workers, adding she, too, has fielded calls from those who say they feel unsafe at city hall. She and Burton say they don’t question whether workers are performing their duties.

“My main concern was that we have everybody wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart and staying safe, but we have to keep working,” she said Thursday. “We have to provide a service to the citizens of Port Arthur … You want to make sure from a council and leadership standpoint we provide an environment safe for people to come to work.”

To paraphrase Doucet, city hall might have closed, but city hall service is still going. Surely, everyone got the message.

I.C. Murrell is the editor of Port Arthur Newsmedia. He can be reached at 409-721-2435 or at ic.murrell@panews.com.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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